For Trump And The GOP: Warning Signs in the Middle Suburbs

by Dante Chinni March 19, 2018

Donald Trump’s road to the White House was complicated, but it went directly through the Middle Suburbs, a collection of blue-collar suburban counties heavily based in the Industrial Midwest. Now a combination of polling data and election results suggests those communities have lost their enthusiasm for President Trump and Republicans.

Much of Democrat Conor Lamb’s narrow win in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district can be attributed to better-than-expected performed in the district’s Middle Suburb counties – Washington and Westmoreland. And February poll data from Gallup show that President Donald Trump is 10 points underwater in the Middle Suburbs overall. Trump won those counties by 13 points in 2016.

The Middle Suburbs were instrumental to Trump’s flipping the 2012 presidential vote in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, and the drop in support in those counties could mean trouble in those states for the GOP in 2018.

In Pennsylvania 18, the Middle Suburb of Washington County is especially noteworthy. Nearly all of the county falls within the district’s boundaries and Republican Rick Saccone, who ran as a close Trump ally, greatly underperformed Trump’s 2016 margins in it.

To be clear, Saccone did win Washington, but only by 7 points, 53% to 46%. Trump won it in a landslide, 60% to 35% – 25 points. Furthermore, Saccone’s margin in Washington was also only half Mitt Romney’s 56% – 42% win in 2012 – 14 points.

Those numbers on their own should be of concern to Trump and Republicans. Elections are all about margins – running them up where you can and keeping your opponent from running them up elsewhere. But the results of Pennsylvania 18 are compounded by broader measures of public opinion in the American Communities Project’s Middle Suburb counties.

February data from Gallup that show only 43% of the adults who live in the Middle Suburbs approve of President Trump’s job performance, while 53% disapprove – a 10-point net negative figure. Those results were down from January, when 45% approved of the president’s job performance and 51% disapproved.

When you look at where Middle Suburbs counties are located in the Industrial Midwest you can see their importance.

Trump ultimately won the presidency by capturing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. – three states Barack Obama won in 2012. He won those states by a total of about 78,000 votes.

The 27 Middle Suburb counties in those three states produced 198,000 more votes for Trump than they produced for Romney in 2012 and Trump’s margins in those Middle Suburb counties exceeded his overall margin in every state. So, in a very real sense, the Middle Suburbs won the 2016 election for Trump.

The counties – such as Macomb County in Michigan, Northampton in Pennsylvania and Racine in Wisconsin – are crucial to him and to the GOP as it currently is constructed, with a heavy reliance on older, white, middle-income voters.

So if there’s a change of heart in these communities, what’s driving it? Part of the answer may be their notoriously fickle nature. Obama won them by three points in 2008. Then they swung back to Romney by two points in 2012 before falling hard for Trump in 2016.

The Middle Suburbs are perpetually in search of change. They have been among the hardest hit places in the nation’s deindustrialization and they aren’t particularly well equipped for the modern economy.

Adjusted for inflation, the Middle Suburbs’ average median household income took the steepest drop of any of the community types in the ACP – falling more than $4,500 between 2000 and 2012. And they tend to have fewer college degrees than other big suburban areas. They run about six points below the national average.

Voters in the Middle Suburbs have been promised changes for decades by Democrats and Republicans, particularly promises to bring back the days of bountiful manufacturing jobs. But they have been disappointed in large part because what these communities desire probably isn’t possible.

Some of the manufacturing jobs that provided good wages in these communities have been lost to trade, but studies show automation has played the bigger role. And even though manufacturing jobs are up since Trump took office by about 245,000, that number is down by more than 4.6 million since 2000. That’s a high mountain to climb.

In short, a candidate and/or a political party wins the Middle Suburbs by promising change. That’s the easy part. Bringing the change to the voters is harder. They are impatient and have a history of being let down. That may be the hurdle Republicans are starting to encounter in these counties in the Industrial Midwest.

Vol. 1 October 2018

Health and Place in America

The American Communities Project releases its first report supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Learn More

Where People Are Living Their Best Possible Lives

by Ari Pinkus March 12, 2018

Schools keep trying to get a handle on it; workplaces are carving out time to address it; meanwhile, myriad media are filled with advice to help people with it. The issue is wellness, and the community where you live seems to play a big role in how it looks to you.

The Well-Being Index from Gallup and Sharecare “measures Americans’ perceptions of their lives and their daily experiences through five interrelated elements that make up well-being: sense of purpose, social relationships, financial security, relationship to community, and physical health,” according to the website.

The American Communities Project sheds light on Gallup-Sharecare’s well-being survey in new ways and shows how people’s perceptions of their lives today and their expectations for the future often vary by where they live.

First, consider how Americans across the ACP’s 15 types view their lives today. On average, 11.1 percent say they are living their “best possible” lives, according to a recent Gallup-Sharecare survey.

But just where are people living their best lives?

Community Well-Being  

In the African American South – the least wealthy of the 15 community types with a median household income of just $35,561 – the percentage of people who say they’re living their best possible lives reaches 14.3 percent. This community type is marked by a diverse population. African Americans compose 40 percent of these communities, and few Hispanics live here.

Hispanic Centers, places where Hispanics make up 56 percent of the population on average and the median annual income is about $42,000, 13.6 percent report that they are living the best lives possible. These communities are often seen as the epicenter of today’s immigration flash points, but at the same time, many are coming to the United States for a better life for themselves and their families. It’s worth noting that Hispanic Centers also skew younger, with 30 percent of the population under 18, which could lead to a more hopeful disposition.

In more homogenous Evangelical Hubs in the South, where 85 percent of the population is white, the numbers also sites above the national average with 13.1 percent say they are living their best possible lives. Again, that’s despite some socio-economic challenges in these places. The median income in them is $39,000, and just 15 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree.

The numbers are a bit lower in Rural Middle America, where 10.5 percent report they are now living the best possible life they can. That may be a bit surprising considering some of the other factors that define that broad swath of counties that stretches from Maine to Washington state.

Although the median household income and college education rate in those counties sits above those of the Evangelical Hubs, Hispanic Centers, African American South, that does not yield a better wellness figure.

And the number for Rural Middle America is largely on par with a couple of much more densely populated and diverse community types: the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs (the wealthiest of the types with a median income of $66,500), where 10.8 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively, say they’re living their best possible lives now. In both those communities, the desire to keep up with more affluent neighbors and friends may push that number lower than for other groups.

Yet it’s the LDS Enclaves (where 31 percent are under 18) and the Middle Suburbs (concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest and 87 percent white) that have the lowest percentages at 9.6 and 9.8 percent, respectively. The Middle Suburbs, in particular, have been more stagnant than the Urban Suburbs and Exurbs and have felt the effects of cumulative layoffs in a variety of industries.

You can see a map of the types here:

In Many Places, the Future Looks Bright

Overall, the survey found that people feel much more optimistic about their futures. Across America, an average of 26 percent believe they will be living their best possible lives five years from now. In several kinds of places, people are feeling particularly positive. Take the African American South, where 31.5 percent say they expect to experience their best possible lives five years hence.

In Hispanic Centers, that number is 30 percent. Striving for a better life may be one reason for this strong showing. Hispanics are also known for having close-knit families and communities. These social relationships and ties to community are crucial to well-being and can boost their expectations for living their best lives.

In the affluent Urban Suburbs, 26.3 percent say they expect to live their best possible lives in five years. Big Cities come in at 28.4 percent. Both the Urban Suburbs and Big Cities are more racially and economically diverse than other community types; tensions often flare as seen in recent years. Also, people here will likely want to maintain, or even surpass, their current standard of living — and may feel the pressure of higher expectations that comes with living near more wealth.

Room to Improve

It may come as a surprise that the picture looks a little bleaker in the College Towns. Located near colleges and universities, these places are second from the bottom of the 15 community types, with 21.2 percent believing they will live their best possible lives in five years. Some may scratch their heads because such places are home to high percentages of youth and college graduates and widely considered bastions of idealism and possibility.

But along with that potentially brighter future in the long run, many unsettling changes are occurring here: the high cost and questionable value of college; seismic demographic shifts spurring new divisions on campus; wellness concerns about sexual assault, depression, drugs, and screen time; and fears about artificial intelligence in the workplace. It will be important to keep an eye on this group’s well-being, as these counties are the home of the nation’s future economic and cultural leaders. Such gloomy views from these communities may not be a good sign for the years ahead.

Vol. 1 October 2018

Health and Place in America

The American Communities Project releases its first report supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Learn More